Are school psychologists’ special education eligibility decisions reliable and unbiased? A multi-study experimental investigation

Amanda L. Sullivan, Shanna Sadeh, Alaa K. Houri

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Nearly 50 years of research show persistent racial disproportionality in the identification of special education disabilities, but the underlying mechanisms for these disparities remain largely unexplored. Because ambiguous regulations defining disabilities may allow subjectivity and unlawful differential treatment (i.e., racial bias or discrimination) in the special education eligibility process, an important target of study is disparate treatment of students by race in evaluations required to determine eligibility. School psychologists have long been recognized as highly influential in this process and in schools' resultant decisions. We used a 3 × 2 mixed factorial experimental design in three studies with simulated case report data to measure the influence of race and assessment data on school psychologists' perceptions of students’ eligibility for special education in cases centering on emotional disturbance, intellectual disability, or autism, respectively. Participants included 302 practicing school psychologists in three states across the three experiments. There was little evidence of racial disparity, but participants tended to render decisions unsupported by, and even contrary to, evaluation data. Implications for research, practice, and professional development are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)90-109
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of school psychology
StatePublished - Dec 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by a grant from the University of Minnesota Institute for Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy to the first and second authors. The content of this paper is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not represent the views of the University. The third author received support from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, # H325D160016, Project Officer, Sarah J. Allen, Ph.D. However, those contents do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. We are grateful for the support. The authors thanks Leila Jones, Annie Hansen-Burke, Jennifer McComas, Karen Seashore, Mollie Weeks, Tara Kulkarni, and Thuy Nguyen for feedback provided on various elements of the studies. We also thank all of the school psychologists and faculty who contributed their time in piloting study materials.The special education evaluation process is intended to be an objective process of determining students' learning needs, but research suggests this may not be the case. A seminal report from the National Academy of Sciences (Donovan & Cross, 2002) noted that referral and identification processes appear unreliable and unlikely to result in identification of the ?right students? (p. 359), supporting long-held concerns that students may be misidentified (e.g., Dunn, 1968). Disproportionality suggests, but does not prove, potential bias in disability identification. A recurrent theme in disproportionality research is the potential link between observed disparities and biased decisions. Historically, challenges to disproportionality emphasized psychometric bias in tests used to determine eligibility, but disproportionality scholars have emphasized the complexity of related research (Skiba, Knesting, & Bush, 2002) and instead point to social inequities and bias in users' interpretations of students' performance and their broader educational contexts (Skiba et al., 2008). This supposition was supported by early research suggesting educators' low adherence to eligibility criteria (Algozzine, Christenson, & Ysseldyke, 1982; Macmillan, Gresham, & Bocian, 1998; Shepard & Smith, 1983), bias in referral and placement (Zucker & Prieto, 1977), and poor use of assessment data in decision-making (Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Richey, & Graden, 1982). Indeed, early experimental and observational studies suggested 40?60% of eligibility determinations failed to meet stated criteria (MacMillian et al., 1998; Shepard & Smith, 1983; Ysseldyke, Algozzine, Shinn, & McGue, 1982), and that disability identification was idiosyncratic to individual settings (Singer, Palfrey, Butler, & Walker, 1989). Qualitative research has also indicated arbitrary application of criteria and provided a basis for critique of school psychologists? perception of assessment as an objective process (Harry & Klingner, 2006; Harry, Klingner, Sturges, & Moore, 2002). These scholars have highlighted the subjectivity inherent in the selection and interpretation of procedures that then contribute to inappropriate educational decisions for minority students.


  • Autism
  • Bias
  • Disproportionality
  • Eligibility determination
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Intellectual disability
  • Special education


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